My journey through the Geek Nation – III

Written by  //  April 18, 2011  //  Science & Technology  //  3 Comments

I am reading Angela Saini’s Geek Nation and this is a post in continuance of my previous posts where I discuss the interesting bits in the book.

=====Part III=====

Just when it seemed that Saini was finally getting to the plot of how India might become the next ‘scientific superpower’, she stumbles on the piles of pseudoscientific beliefs that Indians subscribe to. The exercise starts when she tries to understand why some research institutes like the Academy of Sanskrit Research still believe that Vaimanika Shastra is a definitive text for the future of aeronautics.

Of course, she then comes across ‘scholars’ telling her how all the science that the west has discovered was already all written down in the Vedas. She finds it difficult to argue with these people even though some of them are well educated. She concludes:

Many of the ideas in these old scientific texts are mixed up with spiritual and religious notions. Genuine theories about the world works are not separate from murkier pseudoscience. That is fine though because the experimental method wasn’t really invented until about 350 years ago. It took this long for science to develop a recognisable structure, using hypothesis and tests.

But the strange thing about some of the books is that even the recent ones have the same bizarre mix of science, religion and pseudoscience.

There is an interesting analysis that follows this passage where she meets up with Sanal Edamaruku of the Indian Rationalist Association and Meera Nanda to understand why is there such wide spread belief in these irrational notions.

Nanda the historian says, ‘Indians have a weird psychology, I think. With respect to the rest of the world, we have an inferiority complex which we hide in a superiority complex. It is very aggressive way of defending your own faith by projecting it as superior.’

Edamaruku says, ‘Indians have two lives. For example, when a scientist consults an astrologer for the appropriate time for the marriage of his daughter, where is the scientific approach there? He’s the scientist, but he does not use his scientific approach or his scientific mind when it comes to his private life.

Edmaruku’s words resonate with something I have harped about before. Unsettling is the fact that it is not just the illiterate who are being pulled by the likes of modern day gurus and rishis into believing the non-sense but it is also the rich and the middle class. The richer section of the population is actually investing money in these quacks to be able to make sense of their beliefs and modern science.

At this point the book is well past the half way mark and there has been nothing that has especially impressed me or informed me but the storyline has kept me interested. Somehow though, the book is just seeming to be the story of someone who spent their time in India discovering the country around the word science.

In the last quarter of the book she spends time with Professor Mukundan who has developed Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature profiling for lie detection and whose data has been accepted by courts in India to support judgements. Here again, from her research Saini finds that there has been no peer review or analysis of how good the technique really is.

She meets up with researchers in Delhi and Chennai who are working and making progress towards finding a cure for tuberculosis. It is something that these researchers have to do because the western pharmaceutical corporations don’t think it is a disease that will have a big enough demand to defend their investment.

She discusses India’s attempts at e-governance and modern projects such as Lavasa. She travels to Trombay to hear all about India’s progress towards building thorium reactor and it could be the way India could some day become energy self-sufficient even with the demand rising much faster than supply.

And lastly, she goes to the Indian National Science Congress in Thiruvananthapuram where she finds that people talking about pseudoscience are given the freedom to present alongside world class researchers. She attends the Prime Minister’s talk where he talks about the importance of science in the progress of the nation.

At this point Saini ends the book leaving the reader in a state to make up their own minds. Probably a good thing.

About the Author

Akshat is working towards a DPhil in organic chemistry at the University of Oxford. He is on a mission to better understand the impact of science on the society and in the process communicate science to influence public opinion. He blogs about science on The Allotrope and about everything else at Contemplation."

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3 Comments on "My journey through the Geek Nation – III"

  1. Arghya April 18, 2011 at 4:32 pm ·

    Nice posts Akshat. Definitely now a book I won’t read. It’s always strange when someone uses a strange characterisation (India as a geek nation) and then goes on to rip that apart. She might as well have said India is an atheistic nation and then gone on to demolish that. Seems like the backbone of the book is not any particularly incisive thoughts but rather a self-serving assumption.

    What’s her background by the way? second-generation who can’t get a handle on how Indians are still so irrational?

  2. Akshat April 18, 2011 at 5:39 pm ·

    I think she admits that it was the publishers that gave it the tag line and she wasn’t sure what the book has become once she had completed it.

    1st generation. Engineer from Oxford. Was a journalist with the BBC, and quit her job to write this book.

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